Donald Trump likes big crowds.
‘Act in haste, repent at leisure’. An aphorism Theresa May was no doubt familiar with as a child growing up in the tolerant, civilised climate of her father’s vicarage. Alas, it was one she’d clearly forgotten as the virtuous vicar’s daughter, transformed into Britain’s second only female prime minister set about courting the misogynistic villain of Pussygate, now cast as President of the United States.
In her high risk Brexit-driven haste to be the first world leader to be granted an audience with Donald Trump in his White House lair, May was always a potential hostage to misfortune.
But even Team May couldn’t have anticipated quite how quickly a high risk gamble was fated to turn into a nightmare of hugely-embarrassing global reality. It was almost as if May had landed herself a walk-on part in the latest Hollywood remake of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. And, via another display of hasty mismanagement, contrived to drag the Queen into the lead role, co-starring Donald J Trump.
Initially sighing with relief at the end of that tricky press conference which, to be fair, the PM carried off with a certain confidence, outshining a hesitant, uncharacteristically subdued POTUS, the No 10 team was hit by a ludicrous whammy no amount of judicious pre-planning could have foreseen.
Departing the conference, but still in full view of the cameras, Trump – macho man, self-declared groper of women – held May’s hand. It was pure visual media gold…. but a looming disaster for the prime minister and her advisers.
Was this a sudden display of spontaneous gallantry from him or a quickly contrived stunt to deflect attention from his unimpressive press conference? Or a fond thank you for fixing The Donald up with the quickest full-blown State Visit ever accorded a new US president?
The result was that it certainly downgraded the focus on May’s press conference performance. Days later, Downing Street sources were floating the bizarre notion that POTUS only grasped the PM’s hand to steady himself because he suffers from a crippling fear of walking down stairs and slopes without a handrail, known as bathmophobia. It was news to most observers who have watched The Donald descending stairs and slopes unaided on the campaign trail. Or the solo descent to deliver that controversial inaugural address.
But May’s ‘triumphant’ press conference image took a tumble within a few hours when, with a stroke of the executive order pen he wields much as he operates his Twitter feed, the president instantly announced his draconian, chaotic travel ban on seven Muslim nations. (None of them, curiously, countries where the Trump business empire has any interests).
No national from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan or Yemen has committed a terrorist attack on US soil, unlike Saudis, Afghans and Pakistanis who were responsible for 9/11. Yet, the former were on Trump’s ‘law and border’ ban and the latter not. So, was the real significance that the banned list largely comprises (Iran, apart) those nationalities with the highest number of conflict refugees seeking sanctuary in the West? Perish the thought, came the White House mantra, it’s only about keeping America ‘safe’. And to hell with inconvenient statistics such as more Americans are killed on home soil by children, repeat children, using guns than by any Muslim terrorist.
Embarrassingly for May, White House sources now strongly suggest Trump’s team briefed her about his pending order ahead of their press conference. Yet, even though the prime minister knew it was totally at odds with UK policy, she failed to raise it. Instead, she sought to bask in an over-hyped impression that she’d secured a renewed Trump commitment to NATO and a retreat on torture.
Over-hyped, according to Capitol Hill sources, because the real persuasive force is General James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, Trump’s defence secretary and one man in the cabinet unafraid to speak truth to power and a staunch opponent of torture, a strong defender of NATO and a powerful critic of Vladimir Putin. In short, it’s said, Mattis is a man even Trump wouldn’t want to mess with and one who’d resign on principle and very publicly if undermined.
By the time chaos and protest erupted fully over the travel ban, the PM was on the next leg of her Brexit-inspired courtship ritual…. to trade talking Turkey’s President Erdogan, a leader mired in anti-democratic repression accusations and current world record holder when it comes to locking up critical journalists.
At the press conference May exposed her inability to think on her feet (think Trident a week before) when she three times refused to condemn the Trump ban. It certainly devalued the controversial £100m fighter jet deal with the Erdogan regime she wanted to big up.
But being rattled in Ankara, was nothing compared with what greeted her back home. With cross-party MPs denouncing the Trump ban, 1.5m people (and rising by the minute) calling on the government to withdraw the state visit invitation and thousands of protesters chanting ‘Theresa the Appeaser’ and ‘Shame on May’ laying siege to Downing Street and at other rallies across the UK.
Another sign of how rattled Downing Street really was had come a few hours before Monday’s emergency Commons debate. The PM’s spokesman suggested that it was a little-known Foreign Office committee and not the PM herself who’d come up with the Trump visit idea. Oh, really? Believe that and you’ll start to think May is Maggie Thatcher and Donald Trump Abe Lincoln reincarnate!
Her woes only increased on Tuesday when Lord Ricketts, the former head of the Foreign Office and David Cameron’s National Security Adviser, wrote to The Times accusing the PM of putting the Queen in a ‘very difficult position’ by offering President Trump a state visit with unprecedented speed.
We’ll never know, of course, whether the former mandarin was acting entirely off his own bat or with the tacit approval of Buckingham Palace.
That said, there is little doubt that Lord Ricketts was reflecting the view of many across the party divide and among millions of British citizens.
For the moment at least May is standing her ground and No 10 insists the visit will go ahead in June, even if many MPs decide to boycott Trump delivering the traditional US presidential address to both houses of parliament at Westminster Hall.
Having blundered into such a premature invitation to the most divisive, narcissistic POTUS in living memory, the prime minister is now caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Giving all the appearance of a desperate leader prepared to sacrifice principle and honour for the questionable prospect of future favour, but hardly able to withdraw the offer without risking the considerable wrath of Trump.
There’s no doubt, either, that a Trump state visit would trigger the biggest protest demonstrations seen in the capital since the Iraq War, with massive security implications.
But, given his sensitivity to the size of crowds, just maybe The Donald’s ego might not fancy being the focus of such mass hostility. Especially, say, if Her Majesty wasn’t up for watching him play a round of golf at Balmoral or Prince Charles insisted on offering him his thoughts on climate change?
We can only live in hope, perhaps. But, maybe, just maybe, Her Majesty and even the prime minister have their fingers crossed too?
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, author and former editor of the Sunday Mirror and deputy editor of the Daily Mirror